Belle pente is a relatively recent winery, it has been set up in 1996 by Brian O'Donnell and his wife Jill after the first plantings were made in 1994. Brian spent time in Alsace and Burgundy and liked the type of wines he found in these regions. Belle Pente makes mostly estate wines, which means that the winery uses mostly the grapes grown in its own vineyards, the rest being contracted grapes contracted to other growers.
Brian purchased the property in 1992, it's a beautiful piece of land along the slopes of gentle hills 2 miles from the village of Carlton in the Willamette valley. Only part of the property has been planted with grapes, the rest being prairies for the farm animals and woods.
Brian O'Donnell started around 2005 to follow biodynamic practices in the vineyard management but he hasn't certified it, the property is otherwise organic since the late 1990s'.
Brian says they're making just the 500 biodynamic preparation themselves, otherwise they use the biodynamic compost made by a local coop group.
Brian says that the original idea to use mobile coops for crops was to get rid of cutworms, but ideally you'd need 100 000 chickens for 2 weeks, so this is not really feasible in the real world. Here, they rather help revigorate the parts of the vineyard which are a little weaker than the rest, like the rows along the trees.
The whole property is dry farmed, meaning there's no irrigation. Considering Willamette valley's relatively temperate and rainy climate it sounds normal but many new winegrowers in the region come with a california mindset and they set up irrigation systems right away. I happened onece in 20 years that they drove with a tank to young vines that were struggling but otherwise they've been doing well without irrigation even though summers are very dry.
Asked if he plows every other row like you can see on the picture, Brian says that it depends, some years they keep grass in both rows, this year they cultivated the 2nd row because it was very very dry. The winter has been very dry and except for heavy rains at the end of may they were facing another dry summer, so they decided to plow the 2nd row. Many of these vines are young plants so it is important to have the competition, but there's lots of water in the soil anyway and the plants grow crazy. The water table is not very far underground.
Asked about his recent plantings, Brian O'Donnell says that he planted a few rows of gamay to complete a first trial with the variety, so that he can make some 4 barrels of wine or 100 cases. He vinifies the gamay half whole-clustered and half destemmed, half crushed, so that's not a true carbonic maceration, he says.
They use the same German-made press (picture on left) that the one I saw at Eyrie, plus another small vertical press (background on picture right) which they use for the small batches. They use a manual-sorting table when necessary
Back to the vineyard issue : Belle Pente, like Eyrie Vineyards, is member of Deep Roots Coalition, a non-profit group dedicated to encourage dry farming (non-irrigated farming) in Oregon, a viticulture mode which is still rare in the region. The logo on the site shows rightfully how vine roots look like with dry farming, they're long and go deep into the terroir and minerals of the soil, when the roots of the irrigated vines keep flat on the surface waiting for the easy water and fertilizing additives. There's a play of words here (rather a play of letters in this case) as DRC is also the acronym of a prestigious dry-farmed estate, the Domaine de la Romanée Conti...
As it's explained on the group's website, one of its goals is to educate the public with regard to responsible water management practices and sustainable farming. To this end, Members are encouraged to collect data and anecdotes on irrigated versus non-irrigated vineyards in order to facilitate a rational discussion on the issue of water use.. My suggestion is that they could add a visual of the irrigated-vines root shape versus the shape of non-irrigated vines already displayed, this would sum it up, you'd understand instantly which vine would reflect the minerality and character of the terroir...
I'd even say, forget the responsible water management practices and sustainable farming, it's just a matter of common sense when you're supposed to make wine reflecting a sense of place and soil...
After 20 days of vat time at the harvest, the fermenting wines are poured into the barrels by gravity flow, the vats being located in the open chai or in the building at the street level. They use a pied de cuve (natural starter) for the fermentation of the reds in the vats, they've been doing that for a few years. For the whites, they use commercial strain of yeast because they had lots of reduction when they tried indigenous yeast. They have very long élevage on lees for the whites (9 months) and they prefer to be very careful with the selection of yeast. They noticed that the natural strain present in their vineyard is very good for reds but not so much for whites.
Many of these barrels are empty because they just finished bottling recently. They source their casks mostly from Burgundy but buy some in Oregon too. They keep the casks for about 7 years and buy 35 new barrels every year. They use mostly Casks from the Remond cooperage and in Oregon they buy from Oregon Barrel Works. They also buy from Sirugue in Nuits-Saint-Georges (Burgundy) and from François Frères.
The 2012 wine is still in the barrel, on its lees, finishing its secondary [malolactic] fermentation, because the cellar was cold until not long ago. They don't envision filtration or fining for these barrelled wines, they will pour some of them into new barrels in august, for a 30 % share. They top the barrels once a week.
They use moderate amounts of sulfites as they keep good CO2 levels in the wines. For red wines, they add SO2 first at the beginning during the fermentation to suppress Kloeckera, which is a harmful yeast strain bringing off aromas (faulty aromas) in the wine. Then they add another SO2 at bottling. For white wines there's no SO2 added except for bottling. They don't filter or fine the reds. They've not fined a white for the last 15 years but they may usually do a light filtration on them if there's some remaining sugar and/or malic acid. For the Chardonnay sometimes they don't even filter if the fermentation is complete, it happened twice in the last 5 years.
__ Belle Pente Riesling 2007. Flower aromas. Neat, straight mouth. Brian spent time in Alsace in 1995, poking around in august and visiting diferent estates. From what I understand, some of this riesling is made from purchased grapes.
__ Belle Pente Pinot Gris 2009. Some sugar feel in the mouth. Brian says that Pinot Gris has become possibly the first white variety in the region, about 100 producers making some. Willamette valley has about 300 wineries and he would guess 2/3 of them make pinot gris. He would list the main white varieties here as pinot gris, chardonnay and riesling, the rest being just noise on the overall picture.
__ Belle Pente Pinot Noir 2010. Murto Vineyard, Dundee Hills. Nice clear color, almost turbid. Very enjoyable wine, with something fresh and alive in it when you swallow. The mouthfeel is very appealing as well as the swallowing feel. The volcanic soils here bring aromas of red fruits, strawberry and spicy notes too, I learn.
Brian says that the best vineyards in the Willamette valley grow on hills, benches and draining soils. The floor of the Willamette valley by itself has soils 30 to 50 feet deep, it's the greatest farmland of the world but not for grapegrowing, too much moisture, the vines would just keep growing and growing on there, they wouldn't concentrate on fruit.
Murto Vineyards are very typical of the Dundee hills terroir, it's very volcanic over there, and that's why the wines get these red fruits aromas as well as the spices. In 2010 they had a very long growing season, starting early and finishing late, there was no summer that year, he adds that there was maybe 5 days like this [like the sunny and hot day when we visited] in the entire summer, and the rest of the time the temperature was in the 70s' (F). It brought these medium-bodied wines with lots of complexity and low alcohol (less than 13°), the wines in 2010 are not as lush and fruity as in 2009 but they're still very classic Oregon pinot noir
__ Belle Pente Pinot Noir Estate Reserve 2009. Yamhill Carlton AVA. This is a selection of the best parcels of the estate. Turbid wine, the nose is exciting, same pleasure with the mouth, and the wine is indeed very enjoyable to swallow although its temperature is already too high (we're tasting in the open). And Brian says that this wine which has more structure and tannins is made for aging. The Estate Reserve wines are released after 3 years, so they have already been aged a while when they reach the market. He'll release the 2010 during the famous Pinot Noir Celebration that takes place every year in McMinnville near here. [The IPNC has become a prestigious event in the world of wine and many professionals as well as wealthy individuals from America and even from Europe attend.]
__ Belle Pente Chardonnay 2009. Willamette Valley. From what I understand, these chardonnay vines were made from a selection of vines from the best estates of Burgundy which have never been available in California before. The Oregon State University could oversee the selection and the importation of these plants with the French and started planting them in its nursery 25 years ago. The vines here are now between 10 and 15 years and the quality of the Oregon chardonnay has skyrocketed as a result. Eric Asimov of the New York Times wrote an insightful article last year on the issue and how different clones mean very different types of chardonnay, and lots of praise for the last chardonnays from Oregon.
This wine is a fairly traditional vinification, Brian says, fermentation in barrels (mostly older) with not too much of the toasty, oaky characteristics. He has 2 acres of chardonnay, enough for 350/400 cases a year, a pretty small production.
2009 was a hard year in terms of weather here. Usually this region gets a coastal influence and if the heat in summer can reach during the day something like 85/90 ° F with 45 % humidity, there's a good swing down during the night like in the 50s' °F. This coastal swing comes every day usually and it's pretty good for the wines, but 2009 had a few spikes like in the low 100s', the coastal factor being overwhelmed 3 times along the summer during a week or 10 days each time, which proved difficult for the grapes. This has been a California type vintage, sort of. >br>Watch Brian O'Donnell explaining about a cuvée of rosé he's making certain years.